Saturday, 15 October 2016
Jean Alexander, Corrie's Finest
I don't blog much about Coronation Street these days and I thought long and hard about whether to add my words to the many, many tributes to the late actress Jean Alexander. I find writing tributes to well known figures really challenging. We feel like we have known people like Jean, Anne Kirkbride and Tony Warren for much of our lives because they've always been there. What we do know well are their characters, their personas,what we've read about them in books and magazines or heard from them in interviews.
The lines are so blurred, especially these days. I don't know a great deal about Jean Alexander the lady and I reckon that's probably how she would have liked it. She was interviewed on television, she did write an autobiography and she did make her views known on what she thought of the modern Coronation Street. She was no Eileen Derbyshire, no latter day Greta Garbo. However Jean Alexander quite obviously did not court celebrity and chose to live a quiet, normal life in her local community, despite the fact she'd spent decades in the public eye on the television screens of millions of viewers playing one of the most iconic characters of all time.
Jean's contribution cannot be underestimated. As Hilda Ogden, she gained millions of loyal fans and enlivened Coronation Street for 23 years. She was the true heart of what Corrie is all about and what it hopes to represent, even today. Her performances as Hilda were multi-dimensional, fully formed and completely believable. Yes she was funny, a naturally gifted comic actor blessed with brilliant comedy timing. Yes she tugged at the heart strings, always losing out on the finer things, downtrodden and dowdy, cliinging on as life proved unrelentingly harsh. And yes she was feisty, calling out the likes of Annie Walker, Ena Sharples and most of all, Elsie Tanner. The audience could root for her and that's what made Hilda a classic character and Jean a fantastic actress.
Yet Hilda wasn't always likeable. She could be mean spirited, harsh, gossipy. Jean had the most marvellous facial expression when Hilda had stumbled on a juicy titbit of gossip and it was almost vicious. Hilda couldn't wait to capitalise on someone else's misfortune, probably to forget about her own. Jean gave us the full character when it would have been so easy to drift into cliche.
I loved the muriel; I loved the set up with Stan and Eddie Yeats; I loved the high pitched singing as she bottomed out the Rovers Select. I've almost ruined the DVD which contains the episode from 1977 when Hilda holds a seance with Elsie, Bet, Gail and Suzie. Jean reigned at Corrie in the days when almost an entire episode could revolve around Stan's chickens and that was because the characterisations were just so strong. Like so many fans, my two favourite Hilda moments will come as no surprise whatsoever.
I really do believe the episode which sees Stan and Hilda embark on their second honeymoon is the finest half hour of Coronation Street ever produced. Other characters featured fleetingly but it was pretty much a two hander between Jean and Bernard Youens. It was the pinnacle of their on-screen partnership and encapsulated all that was and is great about Corrie. It was laugh out loud funny, it was quietly humorous in ways we all recognise and know ourselves, it was sad, gentle, touching and dotted with moments of real pathos. It also had one of the finest, most quoted lines of all time...woman, Stanley, woman...
For me though, the most memorable scene Jean Alexander filmed and Coronation Street ever broadcast saw Hilda left alone at the end of the day after Stanley's funeral. She'd been stoic throughout, keeping it together and looking after all at the funeral tea. She only allowed her grief to show when it came time to unwrap the hospital package of Stan's personal effects. It was such a quiet, understated scene - no hysteria. As Hilda opened up Stan's spectacle case, the grief came bubbling to the surface and the viewers are left with the sound of Hilda's sobbing as the credits rolled in silence. It was a rare moment for an actress and a character who many saw mainly as light relief or great comedy value. For me, Coronation Street has never bettered that scene or that performance.
Rest in peace Jean.
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